One of the most eminent of Edwardians, Lytton Strachey, was a writer of wit and charm, with an ability to deliver a razor sharp critical analysis to any subject or person he chose to settle upon. He was a literary breath of fresh air who changed, forever, how biography should, must be written, with his most successful book, Eminent Victorians, a huge best-seller when it was first published in 1918.
My rather crumpled Penguin edition from 1948, bought at a jumble sale in St.Ives, Cornwall, thirty odd years ago, for 20p, is a book that has been a brilliant ‘How To’ writing guide ever since.
In his preface to that first 1918 edition Lytton Strachey writes:
“ The history of the Victorian Age will never be written: we know too much about it. For ignorance is the first requisite of the historian — ignorance, which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art. Concerning the age which has just passed, our fathers and our grandfathers have poured forth and accumulated so vast a quantity of information that the industry of a Ranke[Leopold von Ranke, meticulous German historian, 1795–1886] would be submerged by it, and the perspicacity of Gibbon would quail before it. It is not by the direct method of a scrupulous narration that the explorer of the past can hope to depict that singular epoch. If he is wise, he will adopt a subtler strategy. He will attack his subject in unexpected places: he will fall upon the flank, or the rear; he will shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined. He will row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity…”
And Strachey does this with Eminent Victorians, where he sinks that little bucket into the past lives of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr Arnold and General Gordon. By so doing he strips away the bling of these four carefully constructed lives, making them much more interesting than anyone might have imagined.
Giles Lytton Strachey was born in London in 1880, and was the son of Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Strachey(who had fought in the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845–46) and Lady Jane Strachey (neé Grant), who was a writer (author of Poets on Poets, 1894) and a Suffragist who had been Sir Richard Strachey’s secretary.
Lytton was privately educated before enter Cambridge (Trinity), where he was considered as someone from “another planet”, who nevertheless impressed his tutor J. D. Duff (“Plum Duff”) and his rather severe and “ugly” history professor Sir Stanley Leathes (“ Mr Stand-at-Ease”), who made Lytton read his weekly essays out loud to the other students, which Strachey hated doing, but later used as a method to check out his writing for lucidity.
Although often ill whilst at Cambridge, Lytton settled in well, mixing with the sons of the Bloomsbury Set, most notably Clive Bell and John Maynard Keynes, and often writing to Leonard Woolf who became something of a father confessor. Lytton also became a member of the prestigious Apostles society.
After leaving Cambridge, and living at home for a short period where he had a separate bed-sitting room allowing him to come and go as he pleased and write without disturbance, Lytton moved to Wiltshire renting a small cottage, living “…the life of a literary recluse...” for several years.
During these reclusive years Lytton Strachey became a regular contributor to The Spectator and other weekly and monthly magazines. In 1912 he had his first book, Landmarks in French Literature, published; a book that disappeared without trace until Eminent Victorians came along.
Eminent Victorians caused something of a stir on publication too, even though all the subjects were dead, with Florence Nightingale only giving up the ghost in 1910. But it was short lived.
Cardinal Manning is the first subject of Eminent Victorians, and Strachey writes about him with obvious relish:
“ Undoubtedly, what is most obviously striking in the history of Manning’s career is the persistent strength of his innate characteristics. Through all the changes of his fortunes the powerful spirit of the man worked on undismayed. It was as if the Fates had laid a wager that they would daunt him; and in the end they lost their bet.”
This was a new way to write about a former Archbishop of Westminster. A few pages later Strachey goes on to write:
“ …when his father was declared a bankrupt, all of his [Manning’s ]hopes of a political career came to an end for ever.
“ It was at this time that Manning became intimate with a pious lady, a sister of one of his college friends, who he used to describe as his Spiritual Mother. He made her his confidante; and one day, as they walked together in the shrubbery, he revealed the bitterness of the disappointment into which his father’s failure had plunged him. She tried to cheer him, and then she added that there were higher aims open to him which he had not considered. ‘What do you mean?’ he asked. ‘The Kingdom of Heaven,’ she answered…”
Strachey has a seemingly light touch when he writes about the high and mighty, but it’s a touch that is also quite deadly, especially, a little later on in the book’s first piece, when he describes how Manning first became an Anglican curate (he’d ditched his Spiritual Mother by then), quickly marrying his rector’s daughter. A few months after the wedding the rector suddenly died with Manning stepping deftly into his father-in-law’s shoes, and was soon being spoken off as the probable successor to the old Archbishop of Chichester. Then, just as suddenly, his wife died. Manning was, for while, inconsolable, but soon found comfort in his work, not least writing his sermons sitting piously next to his wife’s grave. Then he stopped doing that and neglected the grave.
There’s an eagerness and wonderful pace to Strachey’s writing that can turn a seemingly dry subject such as Manning into a veritable thriller.
It is the same when he writes about Nightingale, Arnold and Gordon. Strachey brings them to life, warts and all. Only Florence Nightingale comes out of it with her reputation intact.
When Bertrand Russell was heard laughing loudly as he read Eminent Victorians while serving a prison sentence in 1918, for making public speeches against the United States entry into WWI, the prison warder had to remind the firebrand philosopher that he was in prison to be punished.
Strachey’s follow-up book was a biography of Queen Victoria, published in 1921, which consolidated his reputation, followed in 1928 by Elizabeth and Essex. In 1931 came Portraits in Minature.
Giles Lytton Strachey died in 1932 of cancer, with his dying words, “If this is dying I don’t think much to it,” being totally in character.
Eminent Victorians is still available to buy…